By James Hague
The great shareware boom started in June of 1991, when Apogee released the Duke Nukem sidescroller (which, with hindsight, should probably have been called Duke Nukem 2D). By this time only turtleneck-wearing die-hards were still defending the Amiga and Atari machines, and with just the still expensive Macintosh for competition, the PC had finally defeated its more interesting rivals with longevity and sack-it-yourself grocery store prices. Saying that Duke Nukem wouldn’t have gotten a second notice if it had been released for the Nintendo Entertainment System four years earlier (two years after Super Mario Bros. showed up in the States) may sound like an insult, but it felt good to show that a $2000 box could begin to approach a dedicated game system of any kind. And Todd Replogle’s Duke Nukem, with speaker tweedling sound effects by Scott Miller, sold fifteen hundred copies a month well into 1992. For $30 a copy.
id Software had been hooked up with Apogee since 1990, with their Commander Keen sidescroller. With the Keen sequel released the same month as Duke Nukem, and the game everyone remembers, Wolfenstein 3-D, the shareware waters started to become just the slightest bit cloudy. If you opened up an issue of Computer Gaming World in mid 1992, there was an advertisement for another Commander Keen game (Aliens Ate my Babysitter, no joke) right inside the front cover—a game sold in stores. And not long after the feeding frenzy of the Wolfenstein shareware release, you could walk into Babbage’s and pick up a copy of the game mildly reworked into Spear of Destiny, all gussied up in a four color box right there on the shelf next to Wing Commander II.
id’s Doom—which despite frustrated reminders from Apogee support entity Joe Siegler wasn’t released by Apogee—was a monster hit when it brought down ftp servers and corporate LANs in December 1993, and is usually cited as a crowning achievement in shareware. But was it really shareware? You could download a playable episode of the game, so I guess it was, but the game showed up in software stores not much later. Barrels of tar were poured into the water over the next few years, as supposedly "shareware versions" of commercial software would abruptly end after a few levels, hawking the related retail offering.
Not much later, "playable demo" became the preferred term.
For every Apogee and id, there were hundreds of other indepdendent shareware game authors. In fact, though the Apogee model was well proven, very few people jumped on the bandwagon. A notable exception was Epic MegaGames, who started out with the very Kroz-like ZZT series in 1991, and followed it up with the very Duke-like Jill of the Jungle the next year, a game that used to be advertised on the back cover of the now-defunct Shareware magazine.
Other companies never had rabid followers on Usenet, but still found success. I can’t remember the initial offerings from Steve Moraff’s Moraffware without making retching noises, but fast forward to 1999 and you’ll find that he now has ten employees and just as little press as ever. Capture the Flag, a cute MS-DOS strategy game out long before the Quake mod, sold respectably well. Of course most of the smaller folks found that their hexes failed and never managed to eke a living out of Defender clones and Tetrisalikes.
Perhaps most fantastic in light of all this, the rise of Jim Button and Apogee and id and Epic and all the less media-hungry companies, is to remember that the Web didn’t come onto the scene until 1994. Heck, Apogee didn’t even have a web site until 1995! How did the 1500 people each month that doled out their money, undoubtedly a minority of all the rubberneckers, manage to run across Duke Nukem in 1991?
Okay, trick question. The Internet had been kicking since the disco days of 1975, so the lunatics who tried to nab Doom in those first network-jammed, server-resetting hours most likely did so from a textual ftp client. Or they fought for a free line on one of the local bulletin board systems, using their brand new 14.4K modem, which was a whole lot better than the six hundred dollar 1200 baud model they used to snag PC-File in 1983.
Most bizarre of all, a Doom-wannaplay could have waited a few weeks, then ordered the shareware version on two floppy disks, for about five bucks a disk, from one of the many companies who sold unregistered shareware on diskette. Think about this for a minute. Instead of browsing the web, you had to request a catalog using a bingo card from the back of BYTE, peruse the descriptions of software written in an eight point font with a dozen programs to a page, guess which ones sounded nifty, and then pay three to five dollars a pop, plus shipping. And this was for unregistered shareware. Sometimes demos for games like Aliens Ate My Babysitter and The Incredible Machine were mixed in with shareware titles; you paid five dollars for a demo! Most frequently, you pulled a 5 ¼" disk out of the mailbox seven days later to find that the game with "the most innovative gameplay ever" was another variation of Sokoban.
The web put an end to this nonsense and was a boon to developers everywhere, but the glory days of sharware games have gone the way of the MS-DOS command line. Still there, if you know where to look, but hardly at the forefront of an industry. Don't get too complacent; many a popular band can look back on their garage practice days and say the same thing.
|Credits: Illustration © 1999 Chris Buecheler. Gimme Your Money is © 1999 James Hague. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or you'll pay. Oh, how you'll pay.|